Monthly Archives: September 2011

Spaces, language, and making meaning online

I had the pleasure yesterday of hearing a talk from Suresh Canagarajah, who always helps me refresh and re-imagine my ideas about language and movement in a cross-cultural world. Yesterday he was discussing more of his ideas about how language use is negotiated in ways the challenge concepts of monolingual standards and center-periphery conceptions of English usage. I am convinced when he argues that, around the world, people make adjustments in conversation that allow them to make meaning without concern for abstract ideas of correctness.

Where Suresh talked primarily about face-to-face conversations or hard-copy written texts, I found myself thinking about the ways I have seen similar negotiations online. When I look at popular culture fan sites I often find the people posting come from a range of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Though they may be writing in English (or, more to the point, in Englishes) there is a not a single set of usages that govern the conversation. Instead, usage varies from all participants, those for whom English is a first-language as well as those for who it isn’t. But there are two things I find particularly interesting. First, the kinds of negotiations that Suresh has found in his research in face-to-face settings often take place in online discussions, and it’s fascinating to track the back-and-forth of negotiations over words or usage until a meaning is found that satisfies the participants involved. I’ve written about this before, but still find it interesting to watch how it happens and the patience and generosity – rather than judgment or exclusion – that participants usually show each other.

What I find perhaps more intriguing is the way in which conceptions of space from different scholars come together in these moments. Suresh talks about how the “translocal space” is a more useful conception of where these negotiations of language take place than the idea of “place.” He sees place as a static, bounded concept that does not offer the same vision of space as an environment where things happen – interactions, negotiations, meaning making.  What I find interesting is to overlap this theorizing of space with Gee’s ideas of online “affinity spaces” where people gather online, drawn by their interests in common popular culture texts more than their conceptions of home identities. (As I’ve said in the past, I think identity plays a significant role in the creation and reproduction of affinity spaces, yet I do agree with Gee’s idea that it is the pop culture text that becomes the primary point of contact in such spaces.) If we think about the way online and cross-cultural affinity spaces are also translocal spaces of language contact and negotiation, it raises interesting questions of how the popular culture texts help mediate and facilitate these negotiations of language and meaning. Not only do the popular culture texts draw individuals together online, and across cultures, but they offer both a common cultural and linguistic touchstone for the participants. The pop culture text provides common content, rhetorical structures, and language that participants use as a resource and catalyst for their communication.

Obviously there are issues of power, of identity, and of language that still need to be worked out here, but, again the question of spaces comes up again. More on this soon. Thanks for reading.



“Time does not heal all wounds; it simply outlives them”

I like marking anniversaries. I’m the kind of person who likes to hear what happened fifty years ago today, or five, or ten. I’m always the one in the family who says, “Ten years ago today we were…..” when I remember a day in which we had a notable event as a family, or maybe just a great hike I recall. So I wouldn’t have needed all the hype to remember the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. While I haven’t wallowed in the news coverage, I did take a moment to remember the time, recall the uncertainty and my concern for family members living in New York and for how this might affect my young sons. But it was an abstract reflection today. It was an event I witnessed, like most people, through television and, as such, it still has that slightly detached sense of two-dimensionality for me. I have experienced my share of grief, but my noting of the day was more reflective than visceral.

Then I read Richard Miller’s post today “The Great Wall: A Remembrance.” Richard, in the kind of elegant and insightful writing he can master and I cannot, captures many of my thoughts about seeing and grief and time.  He was writing both about 9/11, and about a trip to a literacy conference in China that we were both a part of. He was a keynote speaker and I, well I did what I do. But it was a trip that was fascinating and fun. One friend said it felt like “summer camp for academics.” It was also transformative, intellectually and emotionally. Richard captures this more fully in his post. In his post Richard writes about his hike on the Great Wall with Jennifer Wilson, one of the others on the trip. I remember Jen. She was not long out of grad school in 2007  and she was already a force. She was incisive, sharp, and confident. We had several great conversations over meals or a beer during the trip and, after we got back to the States we kept in touch of and on for a couple of years in the way academics do. And then, we stopped keeping in touch off and on, in the way that academics do.

Brooke Hessler, Amy Rupiper Taggart, Marc Spooner, Richard Miller, and Jennifer Wilson in Beijing, July 2007

I hadn’t thought about Jen in quite a while when I started reading about her today. And, as I was reading about her and thinking I should drop her a line I came across this line in Richard’s essay: ” And then six years later, last week, the news that Jen had died. Violently. In her own home. At the hands of another.”

When grief comes, the timeline can be so varied. Sometimes, after death ends a long illness, the grief has accumulated over time and comes in slowly like a tide. Yet, on this day, the news caught me unaware. Like on 9/11, people who no one expected to be gone had died. Jen was murdered a few weeks ago, but somehow I had missed the news. And today the news left me shaken. She was so forceful and optimistic that it was again news that seemed inconceivable. I won’t pretend that Jen and I were close friends or associates. We were slightly more than “conference friends”; acquaintances  who meet every so often, hug, and ask about each others’ children and writing projects. I knew her slightly more than I knew any of the people who died on September 11. Still, there was the clear pain of loss, of sorrow, that cannot be willed or denied.

It’s often common at such moments – when loss comes close, but not too close – to say that we will use such moments as reminders to stay in better contact with people, to be better friends, better humans. (When loss hits us directly we have no need, and no time, for such reminders.) But we rarely keep such promises for all the obvious reasons. I’m in no mood for such pretending at such reminders today. I will think about Jennifer Wilson and feel sorrow for her friends and family, as I think about families that have had deep and immediate losses in the past ten years and feel sorrow as well. Yet that leaves me with another question at the end of this sunny, warm day. What do we do with sorrow, with remembrances of grief? How do we best raise ourselves off the ground, shoulder the load of life again, and keep moving? Rather than risk trying to answer such questions with my own writing, I leave Richard’s words to close out these thoughts.

Time does not heal all wounds; it simply outlives them and then doesn’t even take note when the wounds are gone. When did we stop feeling the raw pain of December 7th? When did those who survived the bombings on August 6th and August 9th let go the memories of those days? When will those targeted by drones, those driving the wrong mountain road, those attending the wrong wedding, those shopping in the wrong crowded bazaar, the nameless ones congregating at places without names: when will they forget being present at the very moment the business of the everyday turned to tallying the day’s casualties?

The first step down the path towards peace comes by way of trying to see the world through the eyes of another.  Ten years ago, the nation’s leaders, democrat and republican, liberal and hawk, united in committing us to a future of fear, with the blind and unrealizable goal of exacting revenge on the unnamed, unformless forces arrayed against modernity.

Can we step off this path and start anew?

I’d like to think so.